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Why is my child a picky eater?

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

“Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves.” - Jean Piaget

In order to understand why our children are picky eaters, it is important to understand the cognitive development of a child.

When a child is first born, the wide-eyed, enthusiastic, and somewhat apprehensive parents carefully and methodically place that teeny tiny child into that enormous, complicated car seat. They are given a pat on the back, congratulated, and sent out into the world. Granted, there are a million and one books, articles, and journals out there telling us how parenting should be done, what the baby needs, and why we are doing it all wrong!

We are given advice from every aunt, grandma, and exhausted mom that is constantly oversharing. We do our best to remember all these tips and tricks and store them in our extremely tired brains. Absolutely everyone’s experience is different!

The best advice I received after I had my second child came from my family physician. She told me that although times may be hard as they grow, fight, demand, whine and disobey, we need to remember they are children who are fighting for control and autonomy and they do not have the capacity to rationalize like an adult. So, if I want to get through to my 4-year-old, I have to think like my 4-year-old. I’m not saying my hippocampus is always screaming these reminders at me when I am at the height of an argument with my child. But in calmer moments I am able to recognize my child, with a 4-year-old brain is not understanding my adult requests and his need for independence outweighs anything I am saying.

According to Jean Piaget, when children are in the preoperational stage of development (ages 2-7) they are learning and thinking about things symbolically. At this stage in their development perception is at the forefront of their thinking and their perception is typically the most important and only perception that makes sense to them. Their thinking and viewpoints are still extremely egocentric and they have difficulties understanding or accepting the views of others. In short, they want to see things and think about things in their own way. If we allow our children to explore and think on their own, we are facilitating positive cognitive development and the ability to self-govern. It is important to start this process of letting go in the preoperational stage, according to Piaget.

This is typically the time in which children become picky eaters. I have heard parents say that their child was doing great at mealtimes until they turned 2 or 3 or 4. All of a sudden the foods they loved get thrown on the floor or pushed to the edge of the plate. We, as parents become frustrated and upset because we do not understand why the sudden change has occurred. We research endless websites and forums about how to get our children to eat. Is it textures? Has their palate changed? Is there something wrong with them medically? We begin cutting their food in to fun, exciting shapes and placing them on a colourful plate that has their favourite superhero on it (these strategies can work well also). Then we sit and stare at the child with our anxious eyes and knots in our tummies just hoping they will take a bite….this is the exact moment they know they have us haha.

Without even knowing it, children aren’t necessarily becoming picky eaters out of disdain for a certain food, they are doing it out of the need for control. They watch us labour exhaustively to create meals we hope they will sample and gain pleasure out of refusing to eat or even try it. It may seem like I am painting the child in the role of the villain but it is merely where they are in their cognitive development and every child goes through some form of refusal to gain control.

I often (like, very often!!) tell my 6-year-old when his little brother is bugging him to just ignore him. I explain that his brother is simply bugging him because he wants a reaction. I then advise that if he doesn’t give him the reaction, his brother will eventually leave him alone.

This is the same advice I would give to parents of picky eaters. If you drop the stress, nagging, and negotiating at mealtimes, they will eventually just do their thing (remember everything takes time so be patient). It is the reaction they are seeking because they want to see if they have the control. If you give them the control, it will no longer be something they strive for, it will be something they have and it will have a huge impact on their cognitive development in this stage of their little lives.

Picky Plate is one of many tools to help with this development and sense of independence kids long for. We decide what will go on their plates and they decide how much will be eaten. So a good place to start is with small portion sizes and always offer a variety of foods. If there is a certain food they don’t want that day then allow them to ‘veto’ that food. Do your best not to stress about it because over time they may decide to try that specific food because it will be their choice and not yours.

Stop saying, “2 more bites!” and give up mealtime fights!

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